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After Del Rio, some Haitian migrants found safety in the U.S. But many have not

The woman identified in court papers as Esther (far right) was among Haitian migrants who say they were threatened by Border Patrol agents on horseback last September as they tried to return to a makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas.
AFP via Getty Images
The woman identified in court papers as Esther (far right) was among Haitian migrants who say they were threatened by Border Patrol agents on horseback last September as they tried to return to a makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas.

In the chaos of a squalid migrant camp in Del Rio, Texas, last year, Esther was desperate. Her 15-month-old son was sick and hungry.

There wasn't enough food in the camp, so she went back across the river to Mexico to buy some. When she tried to return to the camp on the Texas side of the river, Esther says, she was threatened by Border Patrol officers on horseback.

"There were horses, and the way they were talking to us, asking questions and riding up to us, telling us, 'Go back to Mexico. Go back to Mexico,'" she said by phone in Haitian Creole through an interpreter.

Photographs and video of Border Patrol agents on horseback trying to corral a crowd of Black migrants sparked outrage all the way up to the White House.

Nearly a year later, some of those Haitian migrants have found their way to safety in the United States — but thousands more have not. And advocates say no one has been held accountable for how they were treated by immigration authorities in the camp in Del Rio, or in the months since.

Esther is not the woman's real name, but NPR is using it because that's how she's identified in a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of a group of Haitian migrants who were in Del Rio. Like many of the migrants, Esther says she traveled there from Chile, where she'd been living with her husband and son.

She was among roughly 15,000 Haitian migrants who crossed the border illegally within a few days of each other last September and found themselves confined in a squalid camp on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Esther says she tried to get medical treatment for her son, who was suffering from fever and diarrhea, in the Del Rio camp. But she says medical staff there gave her only water and syrup that didn't seem to help.

The incident involving Border Patrol agents on horseback prompted an internal investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"Not everyone's going to like all the findings," said CBP commissioner Chris Magnus when he announced the findings at a news conference in July, "but the investigation was comprehensive and fair."

Investigators found no evidence that the agents on horseback struck any migrants with their horses' reins, "intentionally or otherwise." But their report concludes that some officers on horseback used "unnecessary" force and verbally abused the migrants.

"There is no justification for the actions of some of our personnel, including unprofessional and deeply offensive conduct," Magnus said at the time.

A disciplinary review board recommended action against four Border Patrol agents, Magnus said, although no details about their punishment have been announced.

But Haitian migrants and their advocates say that report is not credible, because investigators didn't talk to a key group of witnesses: the migrants themselves.

"I was shocked when I received word that the report was coming out and when I read the findings," said Nicole Phillips, the legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance.

The organization, along with other advocacy groups including the Justice Action Center, is suing the Biden administration on behalf of Esther and other migrants.

CBP investigators included filings from that lawsuit as an exhibit in their 500-page report. But Phillips says they never contacted or interviewed the migrants directly.

Phillips says the official report contains some important inaccuracies. For example, she says, Border patrol agents did strike migrants with their horses' reins. She's also disappointed that investigators focused only on the incident with the horse patrols, while basically ignoring the squalid conditions in the camp.

"There was no investigation into that," she said. "The lack of food, the lack of water, the lack of medical care. And that's what's also really disappointing."

In the confusion at Del Rio, several thousand migrants were released directly into the United States. Thousands more were deported to Haiti, including two of Esther's sisters, who had also been in the camp.

Once Esther and her husband understood what was happening, they had to make a choice. They could still try to ask for asylum in the United States. But they didn't want to risk being deported to Haiti, where she said her life had been threatened because of her family's political connections.

"What we were thinking was we couldn't go back to Haiti because of the problems we knew were happening in Haiti," she said. "I didn't want to get deported, and that's why we chose to go back to Mexico."

Esther and her family decided to cross the river back into Mexico, where they received medical treatment for their son, as well as legal help. Months later, they were allowed into the United States to seek asylum. They're now in Florida, living with her husband's family.

But they know that many other Haitians weren't so lucky. The United States has deported more than 20,000 people back to Haiti since last September, though the pace of deportation flights has declined sharply since June.

"That was hard really because when you think about all the effort you made to get there and it's just gone," said a man who's identified as Jacques in the lawsuit against the Biden administration.

Jacques was also in Del Rio last year, hoping to apply for asylum. Instead he was deported back to Haiti. Now he's hiding in the countryside to avoid the gang that drove him to leave the country in the first place, and says he only travels at night to avoid attention.

"Day by day things are getting worse," he said by phone in Haitian Creole through an interpreter. "When you think things are getting better, things get worse. But, you know, we have to be resilient because there is nothing else we can do. We can just be cautious."

Jacques says he's just trying to survive until he can find a way to get out of Haiti again.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.